Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) was an important British historian, who through his controversial theory on civilizations found a place in Israeli and Jewish awareness as an "anti-Semite." According to his theory, civilizations, like human beings, have life cycles that are marked by rises and falls. But the story of the Jewish people, who were determined to survive 2,000 years in the Diaspora only to rise again as a modern nation, did not suit his theory. Thus Toynbee described the Jews as a historic "fossil" - not dead, true, but also not really alive.
When he published his theory at the beginning of the 1960s, he was invited to a debate. The person who invited him was Dr. Yaakov Herzog, at the time Israel's ambassador to Canada, son of the former chief rabbi Yitzhak Herzog and the younger brother of Chaim Herzog, a brilliant scholar and diplomat. Many of Foreign Ministry officials were wary of this debate, which was reminiscent of the mythological word battles in the Middle Ages between Jews and Christians. In the end, however, all those who were present at the debate that took place in January 1961 in Montreal were convinced that Herzog had won.
An email correspondent brought this to my attention and asked if I could find the transcript of that debate. Well, not quite, but the Canadian Jewish Chronicle summarized the entire debate point-by-point, and even though it occurred nearly forty years ago, Toynbee's criticism of Israel sounds exactly the same as those of today's critics - except that Toynbee actually had some regard for the truth. Herzog's successful counter- arguments apply today as well as they did then.
Here is their description of the debate:
Professor Arnold Toynbee and Israel`s Ambassador to Canada, Yaakov Herzog, met in debate at Hillel House on Tuesday, January 31 at noon. At issue were the contentions which Dr. Toynbee had put forth in answer to the student body at an informal session held there last week.
During the course of his observations. Dr. Toynbee had compared the Israeli treatment of the Arabs during the War for Independence in 1948 with that which the Nazis had done to the Jewish people. He also questioned the legal right of the establishment of the Israeli state in a territory which was predominantly Arab.
Ambassador Herzog began addressing himself to the initial issue raised by Professor Toynbee. This point of view he had initially expressed in a book published in l954 wherein he made the comparison between the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis and the manner in which the Israelis dealt with the Arabs during the course of the Arab war to frustrate the United Nations’ decision to partition mandated-Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
At the very outset, Dr. Toynbee audibly agreed with the Ambassador that, in question of magnitude between the between these two events, there was no possible comparison. The Ambassador in turn, agreed with the point of view which Dr. Toynbee had put forth....that the answer to the human dilemma [between] the preservation of man or the destruction of the race lies in the willingness to take a moral leap which must oome from a deep sense of moral commitment.
‘What was the exact situation in newly-partitioned Palestine? Mr. Herrog asked. With the announcement of the United Nations decision in 1947, Radio Cairo promised a war of extermination and massacre. Even before the actual partition took place, vicious attacks on the Jewish settlement had become the order of the day. Inevitably, in every struggle, individual groups of military have been guilty of atrocities towards civilians. That this was never the attitude of the Israeli people has been fully established by subsequent history, the Ambassador continued. "We resisted in self- defence.' But the moment the war was at an end, the 200,000 Arabs within the country were fully integrated into the life and economy and enjoy full and equal privileges with all other citizens of the state.
Professor Toynbee agreed, in his address, with the Ambassador that in magnitude. there was a profound distinction between what happened to the Jews under Nazi control and the treatment accorded the Arabs. While insisting that in essence, the extensiveness of an atrocity is not
the determining factor, he conceded that this action was probably taken by military forces representing independent groups rather than by the regular forces. But what about the occupation of Arab-owned property?
Ambassador Herzog pointed out that 70 per cent of the land occupied hy the Israelis had not been privately owned. These were crown lands under Turkish control and with the establishment of the mandate, the rights were assumed by the British government. He also underscored Israel's constant willingness since the armistice to engage in definite negotiations promising full compensation to the former owners. These had fled from Palestine in response to the radio urgings from Egypt to leave during hostilities in order to return with the victorious Arabs.
If we are to think in humanitarian and moral terms, the Ambassador asked, how can we justify the action of the Arab states in putting the refugee problem in a political and demagogic framework?
Dr. Toynbee admitted that he, too, had asked the same question of Arab leaders and that he roundly condemned their refusal to participate in the resettlement of their fellow-countrymen who are now in camps within their borders. At the same time he underscored his conviction that the continuing displacement of the Arab refugees remains a grave moral issue.At least one newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, agreed that Herzog's arguments won the day:
To this, the Ambassador responded in practical tems. The Israelis have been willing since the
close of the fighting to negotiate a settlement including full compensation to those who left property and home behind. Thus far, the governments involved have adamantly refused to do anything about it. Furthermore, is it good political logic to ask Israel to take back peoples who left with the expectation to return with conquering, victorious armies and, who have, for the ensuing years, lived with the notion of hatred and revenge? To admit these peoples is tantamount to national suicide. ‘Is this to be expected of any state?
Finally. Mr. Herzog raised thc controversial issue of Professor Toynbee's reference to the Jewish people in terms of a “fossilized civilization." The Professor explained that he had merely applied this term in want of a more appropriate word fof description to indicate those civilizations which, while continuing to live, had temporarily ceased to function. "A fossil doesn`t die," the Ambassador objected. “but also doesn`t live." That this is not applicable to the Jewish c1vilization, he offered these distinct points in evidence. A civilization has survived which would be acceptable today to the very men responsible for its creation these two millenia ago. A national existence has been reborn. There has been an ingathering of peoples from seventy lands who have discovered spontaneously a common cultural link, that has assumed democratic forms in keeping with the best of western traditions and the only nation in the Middle East to have attained this stature. Finally, its own technological advancement has been a source of help and guidance to a great number of newly-formed states. This, he concluded. was ample proof that the Jewish civilization is not to be included in a fossil-labelled category.
The debate, which at the outset assumed the form of a high-level dialogue, concluded on the same cordial note, with expression; of good-fellowship on the part of both participants.